RESPONDING TO THE CRISIS IN JENA, LOUISIANA
The Jena Case in Brief
On the morning of September 1, 2006, three nooses dangled from a tree in the High School square in Jena, Louisiana. The day before, at a school assembly, black students had asked the vice principal if they could sit under that tree.
Characterizing the noose incident as an innocent prank, a discipline committee meted out a few days of in-school suspension and declared the matter settled.
At the end of November, the central academic wing of Jena High School was destroyed by fire (the smoke damage is evident in the picture above). Over the weekend, a stream of white-initiated racial violence swept over the tiny community, adding to the trauma and tension. The following Monday, a white student was punched and kicked following a lunch-hour taunting match. Six black athletes were arrested and charged with conspiracy to attempt second-degree murder. If convicted, some defendants are facing sentences of between twenty-five and 100 years in prison without parole.
A survey of relevant events:
- On Thursday, August 31, 2006, a small group of black students asked if they could sit under a tree on the traditionally white side of the Jena High School square.
- The students were informed by the Vice Principal that they could sit wherever they pleased.
- The following day, September 1, 2006, three nooses were found hanging from the tree in question. Two of the nooses were black and one was gold: the Jena High School colors.
- On Tuesday night, September 5, 2006, a group of black parents convened at the L&A Missionary Baptist Church in Jena to discuss their response to what they considered a hate crime and an act of intimidation.
- When black students staged an impromptu protest under the tree on Wednesday, September 6, 2006, a school assembly was hastily convened. Flanked by police officers, District Attorney Reed Walters warned black students that additional unrest would be treated as a criminal matter. According to multiple witnesses, Walters warned the black student protestors that, “I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of my pen.” This was widely interpreted as a reference to the filing of charges carrying a maximum sentence of life in prison.
- On Thursday, September 7th, police officers patrolled the halls of Jena High School and on Friday, September 8th, the school was placed on full lockdown. Most students, black and white, either stayed home, or were picked up by parents shortly after the lockdown was imposed. The Jena Times suggested that black parents were to blame for the unrest at the school because their September 5th gathering had attracted media attention.
- Principal Scott Windham recommended to an expulsion hearing committee that the three white boys responsible for hanging the nooses in the tree should be expelled from school.
- On Thursday September 7, 2006, asserting that the noose were merely a silly prank inspired by a hanging scene in the television min-series ‘Lonesome Dove’, the committee opted for a few days of in-school suspension. The names of the three students were not released to the public for reasons of confidentiality.
- According to press accounts, on September 10, 2006, several dozen black parents attempted to address a meeting of the school board but were refused an opportunity to speak.
- At a second September meeting of the school board, September 18, 2006, a representative of the black families was allowed to give a five-minute statement, but school board refused to discuss the “noose issue” because the matter had been fully addressed and resolved.
- Although few major disciplinary issues emerged during the fall semester at Jena High School, there is strong evidence that several black male students remained unusually agitated throughout the semester and that disciplinary referrals on these students spiked sharply.
- On Thursday, November 30, 2006, the academic wing of the Jena High School was largely destroyed by a massive fire. Officials strongly suspect arson.
- Throughout the following weekend, Jena was engulfed by a wave of racially tinged violence.
- In one incident, a black student was assaulted by a white adult as he entered a predominantly white partly held at the Fair Barn (a large metal building reserved for social events). After being struck in the face without warning, the young black student was assaulted by white students wielding beer bottles and was punched and kicked before adults broke up the fight. It has been reported that the white assailant who threw the first punch was subsequently charged with simple battery (a misdemeanor), but there is no documentary evidence that anyone was charged.
- In a second major incident, a white high school graduate who had been involved in the assault the night before pulled a pump-action shotgun on three black high school students as they exited the Gotta-Go, a local convenience store. After a brief struggle for possession of the firearm, the black students exited the scene with the weapon.
- The Jena Times has reported that, in light of these racially-tinged incidents, several high school teachers begged school administrators to postpone the resumption of classes until the wave of hysteria had dissipated. This request was ignored and classes resumed the morning of Monday, December 4, 2006.
- Shortly after the lunch hour of Monday, December 4, 2006, a fight between a white student and a black student reportedly ended with the white student being knocked to the floor. Several black students reportedly attacked the white student as he lay unconscious. Because the incident took place in a crowded area and was over in a matter of seconds eye witness accounts vary widely. Written statements from students closest to the scene (in space and time) suggest that the incident was sparked by an angry exchange in the gymnasium moments before in which the black student assaulted at the Fair Barn was taunted for having his “ass whipped”.
- The victim of the attack is close friends of the boys who have admitted to hanging the nooses in September of 2006.
- Within an hour of the fight, six black students were arrested and charged with aggravated battery. According to The Jena Times, at least a dozen teachers subsequently threatened a “sick-out” if discipline was not restored to the school. According to the Alexandria Town Talk, District Attorney Reed Walters responded to the teacher’s threat by upping the charges on the six boys to attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit second-degree murder—charges carrying a maximum sentence of life in prison.
- On the basis of the charges filed by the District Attorney’s office, all six black students have been expelled for the remainder of the school year and, according to The Jena Times, several teachers quickly demanded that the accused boys be barred from the school for life.
- On December 13, 2006, District Attorney, Reed Walters published a statement in The Jena Times in which the young men arrested in the school fight incident were characterized as criminals who had been terrorizing both the school and the community. The sloppy wording of the statement and an introduction associating the tirade with the “recent two incidents at Jena High School” created the impression that those accused of involvement in the fight were also suspected of settling the school fire.
- The Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct 3.6(a) state that: “A lawyer who is participating or has participated in the investigation or litigation of a matter shall not make an extrajudicial statement that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know will be disseminated by means of public communication and will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding in the matter.”
- At a January 29 school board meeting called to consider the possibility of reversing the decision to expel the students, District Attorney Reed Walters, appeared as the school district’s legal counsel. Although it is standard practice in Louisiana for district attorneys to represent the local school board, there is strong evidence that the disciplinary investigation undertaken by the school and the criminal investigation of the December 4 fight are virtually indistinguishable. This heightens the impression that the charges filed by DA Reed Walters reflect the understandable hysteria engulfing both the student body and the school faculty in the wake of the school fire and a weekend of racial violence.
- An attorney hired to represent two of the defendants was informed by District Judge J. P. Mauffray that he could represent neither because, having interviewed both clients, he had a conflict of interest if one of them should decide to testify for the state. This ruling has been appealed.
The competence and independence of investigators is seriously in doubt.
- There can be little doubt that a white student was assaulted by several black students at Jena High School on December 4, 2006. However, conflicting eye witness statements make it extremely difficult to determine the number of participants or the identity of the alleged assailants with any degree of certainty.
- It is virtually certain that at least one of the alleged assailants was not near the scene of the fight. Most of the students accused of participating in the assault deny involvement.
- The defendants are invariably described as “good kids” by black residents. One of the defendants is a highly respected athlete with a clean disciplinary record who has been repeatedly praised by his coaches as an exemplary student on and off the football field.
- The assault on a black student at the Fair Barn on Friday night and the fight at Jena High School on Monday morning are mirror images. In the first instance, a white twenty-two year-old initiated the fight with a punch to the face of a black seventeen year-old; at the school, a yet unidentified black student initiated the fight with a punch to the face. In both instances, the assailant’s friends joined the fray instantly. The striking difference is that the white youth responsible for the Friday incident have not been charged while those allegedly responsible for the school fight are facing charges that could send them to prison for 100 years without parole..
- Although a “bill of information” (based largely on mutually contradictory eye witness accounts) has been filed in connection with these cases, none of the accused has been formally indicted. In the state of Louisiana, only defendants facing the death penalty or life in prison must be indicted.
- In the state of Louisiana, if the victim of an alleged assault is a juvenile, the assailant can be found guilty of attempted second-degree murder even if there was no clear intent to do serious bodily harm. In other words, a seventeen year-old who strikes another seventeen year-old can end up doing fifty years without parole. Any “enhancement” (such as a prior conviction) doubles the penalty.
The behavior of school officials and school board members reflects a breathtaking insensitivity to the mixture of anger, intimidation and horror inspired by the hate crime of late August.
- The response of school administrators to a flagrant hate crime was radically insufficient. According to The Jena Times, the noose incident was officially characterized as a harmless prank in which white students were merely imitating the actions of cowboy vigilantes in the television mini-series, ‘Lonesome Dove’ with no intent to intimidate the black students who had expressed a desire to sit under the tree. This construal of the noose incident is so unconvincing that the objectivity of anyone who accepts it must be questioned by any reasonable observer.
- In several statements published in The Jena Times, investigators have insisted that the alleged fight at the High School has no connection to either the November fire or the September noose incident. This statement violates the canons of simple common sense. Indeed, as the teacher’s post-fire plea to administrators suggests, the incendiary atmosphere created by the tragic fire and a weekend of white-initiated racial violence made a violent episode at the High School virtually certain. The objectivity and independence of LaSalle Parish investigators would be regarded as suspect by any reasonable person.
- Unambiguous hate crimes call for harsh discipline and an extensive program of sensitivity training for administrators, teachers and the student body. Yet school administrators failed to discuss this or any other serious option.
- Even in the face of heartfelt pleas from black parents, school administrators and the LaSalle Parish School Board refused to discuss the implications of the noose issue.
- This derogation of responsibility would be deeply troubling to any reasonable observer with even a cursory appreciation for the racial history of the region.
- Similarly, school administrators who placed the school on lockdown following the noose incident in September failed to anticipate trouble on December 4, 2006.
The ethical lapses and flawed professional judgment of LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters call for strong remedial action:
- On September 6, 2006, Mr. Walters made intimidating remarks interpreted by many black students as a suggestion that any illegal acts committed in response to the noose incident would result in a life sentence.
- Mr. Walters’ published comments in the December 13, 2006 edition of The Jena Times represent an unambiguous attempt to poison the minds of potential jurors and grand jurors.
- Mr. Walters’ decision to increase the charges of defendants involved in the alleged fight at the school to attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to attempt second-degree murder have transformed a routine school fight into a premeditated gangland hit perpetrated by street thugs intent on murder. This bizarre escalation of charges is impossible to justify on even the most extreme and pro-prosecution interpretation of the meager facts at hand.
- There is strong evidence that Mr. Walters, in his role as counsel for the LaSalle School Board, has been so influenced by the atmosphere of paranoid trauma sweeping the school in the aftermath of (a) the noose incident, (b) the school fire and (c) a weekend of racial violence, that he has lost any remnant of professional objectivity.
Restoring justice to Jena will require the following:
- The Louisiana State Police must be assigned to the investigation of the alleged fight at the school.
- District Attorney Reed Walters must recuse himself from the investigation and prosecution of the black defendants in the alleged school fight of December 4, 2006 or the incident at the Gotta Go Convenience store on December 2, 2006.
- The legal cases cited above must be transferred to an alternative venue.
- A special prosecutor must be assigned to prosecute whatever charges (if any) are deemed appropriate on the basis of an independent state police investigation.
- The Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice should launch a full investigation into events in Jena, Louisiana, beginning with the noose incident of August 31, 2006, and culminating in the alleged fight of December 4, 2006 to determine if the civil rights of Jena residents have been violated.
- The inaction of the LaSalle Parish School Board on the noose incident represents a clear violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Therefore, a written complaint should be filed with the U.S. Department of Justice.
- The LaSalle Parish school system must institute a rigorous program of diversity education beginning in elementary school and continuing through high school with a particular focus on the history of race relations in America and the virtues of pluralism, mutual respect and equal opportunity. In addition, a yearly, system-wide in-service diversity training program must be provided for teachers and administrators.
Friends of Justice